Fishing on the Frontier – Part 23

Dry Fly

It strikes me that in all the trips to the river (almost daily for an hour or two) since some time in May; I have fished dry fly almost exclusively.

There have been a couple of occasions when the river has been coloured or there has been a nasty wind when I have fished micro-duo (a small dry suspending a size 18 nymph) but by and large it has been dry all the way.  And I know that this will continue all the way to the end of October.

Trout and grayling spend most of the warmer months of the year looking upwards for their prime meals – hatching flies or spinners.  I am very much a daytime angler nowadays, seldom fishing the evening rise (to spinners), so most of my fishing is for fish feeding on emergers or duns.  At this time of year, fish have to feed at every opportunity and if there is a hatch going on then trout and grayling must capitalise on it.

Such a hatch offers fish their easiest meals, no question.  They do not have to search the water column for active or drifting nymphs and their food, the emergers, duns and spinners, are brought to them on the foam and feed lanes.  They take up their ‘pecking order’ stations and feast.  In one sense this offers us the easiest fishing we experience.  Our target areas are visible, betrayed by rise forms.  These not only give away the fish’s position, but subtle information about how it is rising to the fly.  You can tell a lot by the way a fish is rising, even about the invertebrate species on which it is feeding and the life-cycle stage that is being targeted, particularly the difference between emerger and winged adult, or dun.

There are, however, certain subtleties that make our dry fly fishing also much more challenging than it should seem, given those obviously feeding fish.  Let me highlight a few points here, which you might find helpful, and certainly are found so by my guests out on the river.  They make the difference between an ordinary day or session, and one in which the angler experiences that overwhelming satisfaction of successfully engaging the river and its fish.

Firstly, I would say pick out a target, an appropriate one.  Which is the most important fish?  It is the one closest to you, or to your starting position, irrespective of its size, species or feeding habit.  If you have windless conditions, or a generally upstream wind, you will be working your way upstream, so that important target will be the fish closest to you immediately up or across the stream.  Without a doubt you should present to this fish first, no matter how many fish are showing upstream of this position.  If you don’t there will be a double edged blade working against you; the waste of the opportunity of the close-lying fish, and also the risk – or certainty – of spooking this fish which may well (and usually does) bolt through those upstream targets and spooking them too.  Seems obvious doesn’t it?  You would be amazed how often people ignore this prime rule of approach to surface feeding fish.

Next, I would be analysing what my prime target fish, and others nearby, are feeding on, including the stage of the hatch on which they are focused.  You can tell a huge amount from that rise form.  Can you see the flies that are being taken; are they being taken below, in or on the surface – even a few millimetres makes a world of difference?  Is the mouth breaking the surface; can you see the back, dorsal and/or tail of the fish above the surface when it rises?  Can you tell whether it is a trout or a grayling, or other species?  They all take the fly, and stages of a fly’s life cycle, in subtly different ways and the successful dry fly angler usually takes account of this.  Given the fly and the fly stage that interests the fish, I suggest you match it pretty well in terms of General Impression of Size and Shape (GISS), most especially the size, and perhaps pay a little attention to the colour.  This latter point can be covered pretty well, in my experience with heron herl, cock pheasant tail, mole fur and both natural and dyed olive hare’s mask fur.  Even the tying thread can make a significant difference here, and I generally use either primrose yellow Gossamer, or Ghost Thread (the latter from FlyTek) which is clear and translucent.

Given that you are happy with your leader construction, which as a rule of thumb is somewhere around the length of your rod (longer in low, clear water and calm conditions; shorter in inclement winds), probably tapered down to somewhere between 5X (in good flows perhaps with a little colour) and 7X (for low, clear and calm water), you can now consider the presentation to your target, which is all about range and angle.  And here in my experience and observation is where river anglers make the most mistakes!

Dry fly (and more subtly nymph) presentation is controlled by the angler choosing appropriate range and angle on a target fish.  Look at it like this: beyond 10 metres (fly line and leader out of the rod tip); you have virtually no control whatsoever.  In a river with any pace of flow or non-laminar nature (character) whatsoever, the surface drift will immediately affect the fly line and, crucially will affect the fly, causing that killer of presentation – drag.  Even at 10 metres, you tend to have only very short controlled drifts of up to a couple of metres.  It is absolutely vital (almost every time, even with caddis feeders) to present a fly with a dead drift, which after all is simply in tune with how the naturals are behaving and how the fish tend to take them.  Drag will nearly always spoil the presentation and might even spook wary trout and grayling for several minutes.  In my estimation, the avoidance of drag is the single most important aspect of presentation.  Drop the range to six metres and you will find that you have a very good level of control, even in quite boisterous flows and can dead drift a fly along a long track upstream, across and then down, though in practice, in calm conditions at least, we tend to be interested mostly in the drift period while the fly remains upstream.

Also important is that angle I refer to; which means the angle made between the angler’s cast and the fish in the stream.  If you are directly downstream of the target fish, at a zero degree angle, you cannot present the fly properly – if you overcast the fish, so as to allow the fly to dead drift over its rising point, you will line the fish and rarely is such a cast successful.  It is far better to open the angle, preferably to about 45 degrees, so that when you cast the fly will land perhaps a metre upstream of the fish and will drift down over its head such that all the fish will see is the fly, and at worst perhaps a short length of tippet.  Open the angle further, to 90 degrees, or square with the fish, and you run the risk of being seen by the fish and therefore spooking it.  Remember that the fish are pointing into the flow and whatever is upstream of them, or across the stream, is much more visible than whatever approaches from downstream.

So, the ideal is a six metre range and a 45 degree angle of presentation.  In reality, however, we have to compromise to varying extents, pushing the range and stealing a bit of angle here and there, simply because of the practicalities of river fishing.  I claim, however, that success in the single handed fly rod game is all about this presentation theme, and the crucial variables are range and angle, remembering that a fly that is subject to even minute drag, is out of control.  I have discussed wading technique in former Frontier articles and I will always refer anglers interested in presentation to these and generally to wading through a river.  Casting is important, of course, with dry fly and nymph presentation, but it is nothing like as important as being able to adopt the reasonable range and angle on a target fish, which nearly always involves the angler’s body stance in terms of wading or bank-side position.  You have to get the fly about right in terms of GISS (and most particularly in terms of size), but beyond that just think about range and angle and that all-important aspect of control.

And finally, just to emphasise what I am talking about here: of the many river trout and grayling I catch each year, almost every one of them is caught below the 10 metre range, and more than half of them are caught at six metres.  Those few caught out at 12+ metres, are when I am really pushing it in pretty ideal conditions (calm or following wind, along with an even flow).  I’ll take a near 45 degree angle if I can, but I am much more likely to compromise here than I am with the range.  Given feeding fish at greater than 10 metres and I will do absolutely everything I can to shorten the range (which usually means wading) so that I can stay within those reasonable boundaries of control.


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